Seafood and scenery make Kent the perfect UK staycation destination
- Credit: Paul Thomas
I have just completed the most humbling short-break holiday of my lifetime. And I commend the destination county in England to anyone in East Anglia for a visit and stay.
I was born in Maidstone, Kent and spent my first five days there. Now, 80 years on, I have just had another five days of life in Kent – and oh, what an experience.
We were viewing and walking this spectacular Garden of England with beautiful seaside views, talking with friendly folk, a cosmopolitan mix of London-like hospitality and tasting very Kentish fish dishes, sometimes pricey – but delicious. And so much more.
My five days, this time, were with my wife Mary, our daughter Marina – and grand-daughter Meagan, aged two. Meagan was a hit – her infancy, antics, noise and big smiles attracting praise and laughter from many people in the places we visited.
Our home for the five days was a spacious, four-storey house we found thanks to Airbnb, just off the seafront of Broadstairs, one of the most attractive resorts, and facing but not quite viewing the French coast, 27 miles away over the English Channel.
Kent's largest river is the Medway which splits the county approximately east and west. If you are born on the east side of the Medway you may call yourself a Man of Kent. If you were born to the west a Kentish Man. Ditto Maids of Kent or Kentish Maids.
My grandfather was a colourful character, a chocolate salesman for Fry’s which became part of Cadbury’s. He, William Beckey, told me 70 years ago that I was a Man of Kent – so I was born, and will die as – despite my great love for, work and residence in Norfolk, the county where I have spent so much of my life.
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Kent is countryside – but also seaside, emphasising its marine life.
Broadstairs is both beautiful but talented too – indeed literary giant Charles Dickens used it as a summer home to write many of his works.
Previously his life had centred around Fleet St newspaper days – so the new Kentish angle added to my interest as we ate in a pub carrying his name, and on the seafront next to the house he occupied for months at a time.
Near his house is another institution – an ice cream parlour Morellis, started by an Italian family in Northern Ireland in the early 1900s, now run by its fifth generation and offering numerous, including home-made, ice cream flavours and dishes to its many customers. It is in London, Paris and Monte Carlo too.
Kent has so much history. Julius Caesar came to Britain, first in 55 BC he landed at Deal and his fleet was swept away by the channel’s high tidal range which swamped their ships. He returned in 54 BC with cavalry and won a confrontation at Canterbury.
Later came the Normans and after the Battle of Hastings they started building castles and cathedrals. Canterbury had the first Norman cathedral and castle, with Rochester a close second. Although, many castles were built in Britain then, each county had just one cathedral... except Kent, which is the only county in Britain to have had two cathedrals splitting the county into two dioceses
Kent's towns were bombed throughout the war and casualties on the ground were heavy. On June 1, 1942, Canterbury suffered a particularly heavy attack as high explosives and incendiary bombs were dropped on the city for 75 minutes.
Hundreds of historic buildings were destroyed and entire streets flattened. Miraculously, the cathedral was saved. So much fighting – death. But by 1945, prime minister Winston Churchill had stood up to all - including plotting victory from Chartwell, his country house near Westerham, Kent, which he bought in 1922 and lived in until just before he died in 1965.
Today you pass Manston airfield which was very active with its Spitfires in the world wars, with Kent closest for bombers and battleships sweeping across – and heavily bombed during the Battle of Britain. Barnes Wallis used the base to test his bouncing bomb on the coast prior to the Dambusters raid. Two museums, the RAF Manston History Museum and Spitfire and Hurricane memorial, are located there today.
Kent is indeed the Garden of England – just one illustration is Swaylands, where we stayed a day with friends Bob and Marian, in their apartment, part of a beautifully refurbished Grade II-listed Victorian mansion in a glorious 40 acre gated community on the edge of the historic village of Penshurst.
This was owned in the 19th century by banker George Drummond, whose predecessors founded Drummond bank in 1717. There George entertained the Prince of Wales, who became King Edward the Seventh, Sassoon, JM Barrie and US anti-slavery campaigner Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Kent is a strong, charismatic county… and forward-thinking. In an artistic way too – with Margate’s Turner Contemporary gallery just one new star. Not only does it display historical work by JMW Turner who visited Kent in the 1800s – but also a very different conceptual artist Ellen Harvey, born in Kent in 1967 and who creates modern scenes appearing like photos – but which actually represent many subjects – one being scores of paintings illustrating all of Florida spread round more than 100 feet of display walls. Today Ellen lives and works in New York but her work is so impressive, winning many awards.
Another artist Tracey Emin studied fashion at Margate’s College of Design (now the University for the Creative Arts). There she met and partnered expelled student Billy Childish and was associated with The Medway Poets. Again a reflection of Kent people’s artistic abilities. But Margate is a great attraction to children too – with Dreamland, an amusement park based on a traditional English seaside funfair dating from 1880, and with a Grade II*-listed Scenic Railway wooden rollercoaster.
Kent folk also refer you to “the shingle beaches of Islington-on-Sea” – which are actually Whitstable, renowned for its oysters. From here you can see two areas of interest at sea. The first is the Kentish Flats windfarm turbines turning wind into power. The second, and now looking rather tiny in comparison, is the Maunsell Forts… a host of sea forts protecting the nation in the Second World War.
Kent has so many qualities – not the least the produce of its fishermen, now fighting Brexit as they seek our coast’s oysters, prawns, so much fish that is oh, so tasty and which dominated our eating! I had to be reminded that Norfolk and Suffolk too, have coastal fish restaurants and great catches.
There is great similarity between Norfolk, Suffolk and Kent - they are all full of character, history, lovely scenery and wonderful food. And given the fact that Kent is only the other side of the Dartford Bridge, it's a great destination for any UK staycation this summer.